After scraping together a last-minute come-from-behind win in Washington on Sunday, the Maple Leafs return to the Scotiabank Arena to face the Red Wings with a chance to officially clinch home ice in round one in the penultimate game of the regular season (7 p.m. EST, SNO).
Despite missing several key players and playing the second half of a back-to-back with a heavy travel schedule, the Leafs found a way to win on Sunday, overcoming a 3-1 deficit late in the third period to grab a 4-3 shootout victory. The Leafs honestly had no business winning the game; they looked exhausted for much of the night, and as Sheldon Keefe noted after the game, the execution and decision-making weren’t sharp for most of the 60 minutes.
With help from Erik Kallgren to keep them in the game followed by a late push, they found a way, and now they have an opportunity to officially clinch home ice in the first round of the playoffs in a full 82-game season for the first time since 2004.
Their adversaries in this game will be the Detroit Red Wings. Like all other non-playoff teams in the East, their fates have been sealed for quite some time, although they still are fun to watch mainly for two reasons: Lucas Raymond and Moritz Seider.
The two rookie sensations have given Wings fans something to cheer for and a fresh injection of optimism for the future. Seider, in fact, is currently the favourite to win the Calder Trophy in many minds. Raymond has experienced a small dry spell with just one point in his last seven games. He, and the Red Wings by extension, are hoping to end the season on a high note as they build for next season.
The Leafs are looking to end the season on a high note as well for a much different reason. Heading into the playoffs with momentum and home-ice advantage isn’t nothing. For as good as the Leafs have been this season, they have been much better at home (29-8-2) than on the road (23-13-5), and that home record could improve further over the final two games.
There is also the storyline of Auston Matthews’ chase for 60 goals, which has stalled over the last five games, giving him two games to score two goals if he’s to hit the elusive milestone. However much he may try to downplay its significance, it does mean something to both him and the fans.
Additionally, Mitch Marner is trying to chase down the 100-point plateau for the first time in his career. He currently sits at 97 in just 71 games. Ideally, both the Leafs’ superstars have a big game tonight so they can take Friday night’s finale off without any second thought.
The duo will have a new running mate in this game. Michael Bunting is skating but not yet ready to return from injury, so Alex Kerfoot will receive the promotion to the top line in this game. Nick Abruzzese was given an audition there on Sunday, but that experiment didn’t go over well or last particularly long — only roughly a period before Keefe loaded up the top line with William Nylander.
Speaking of Nylander, he will return to his spot on the third line with David Kampf and Pierre Engvall. The second line will keep Ilya Mikheyev and John Tavares together, with Nick Robertson slotting in as the second-line left wing having been called up on an emergency basis. With the Marlies, Robertson just had an eight-game point streak (10 points, seven goals) come to an end despite seven shots on net against Belleville; he should be riding in with some confidence.
The defense pairings will also see a change, as Jake Muzzin is making his return to the lineup. He will play on the second pair with TJ Brodie, who is shifting back over to the right side. The other two pairs (Rielly-Lyubushkin, Giordano-Liljegren) remain intact, with Justin Holl pushed out of the lineup. These final two games won’t determine everything vis-a-vis the game-one pairings, but how Jake Muzzin fares as he tries to find traction with his game again is going to be a factor in the larger decision-making process.
In goal, Jack Campbell will receive the start in what could be his last game of the regular season depending on the decision around resting players on Friday. In a much better place with his game now, Campbell is looking for a better outcome than the last game against the Red Wings, the famed 10-7 gong show on February 26.
On the other side of the rink, Alex Nedeljkovic is the projected starter for the Red Wings. He holds a record of 20-23-9 with a .901 save percentage and a 3.31 goals-against average this season.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the importance of getting Jake Muzzin into game action before the playoffs:
He needs to get the game reps, both to get himself up to speed and then just gain the confidence that he is ready to go.
Keefe on Moritz Seider’s game:
Very complete player. He’s got great skill, size, and competitiveness.
Some players come in and they have one or two things that really carry them and a couple things that need a lot of work. That’s why it takes some time; you have to protect them. He seems to be a very well-rounded, very mature guy for his age, and that’s why he’s able to take on so much. There’s not a lot missing from his game.
Keefe on how he has grown as a coach this year:
With every experience, you get better, I know my team and my players that much better. Going through every experience that you go through allows you to alter course but also to push buttons and push in certain ways. Players understand why you’re doing it because of what you’ve been through and know what you’re focused on. I think those are the biggest things.
The coaching staff has changed also since coming in here. All the coaches that I’ve worked with since I’ve been here have been great in their own ways. This season, with Dave Hakstol moving on to Seattle, there was an opportunity to really go through a process to really select my coaching staff.
The additions of Spencer Carbery and the work he’s done with our power play, Dean (Chynoweth) on the penalty kill and the defense, and Manny (Malhotra) and the role that he’s played… I think our staff is very efficient. I really like how we’ve come together and how each person has executed their responsibilities
All of those things just have me, as a coach, feeling that much more prepared.
Auston Matthews on Moritz Seider:
He’s really solid all-around. He’s really big with really good poise with the puck and really good first passes. It’s maybe not as appreciated as much, but I find that he just makes really good passes coming out of the d-zone. He’s always leading the rush.
He’s just been really solid on both sides of the ice for them, and he’s always a challenge to go against. He’s big, he’s strong, and he’s got a long reach. He’s just a solid all-around player.
Matthews on how the team has bounced back after last year’s playoff disappointment to have the best season in franchise history:
I think that’s always what you strive for is to just continue to grow and continue to get better. Maybe it’s some extra motivation from past losses and stuff like that, but I think that is the goal every year, whether it’s individually or as a team: to get better and push yourself to be the best version of yourself that you can be every day.
I think we recognize that, but obviously, the team success comes first, and that’s what we’re trying to build and trying to grow into playing a long time here in the spring.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #91 John Tavares – #89 Nick Robertson
#88 William Nylander – #64 David Kampf – #47 Pierre Engvall
#26 Nick Abruzzese – #11 Colin Blackwell – #19 Jason Spezza
#44 Morgan Rielly – #46 Ilya Lyubushkin
#8 Jake Muzzin – #78 T.J. Brodie
#55 Mark Giordano – #37 Timothy Liljegren
Starter: #36 Jack Campbell
#50 Erik Källgren
Extras: Kyle Clifford, Wayne Simmonds
Injured: Michael Bunting
LTIR: Ondrej Kase, Rasmus Sandin, Petr Mrazek
Detroit Red Wings Projected Lines
#59 Tyler Bertuzzi – #90 Joe Veleno – #23 Lucas Raymond
#15 Jakub Vrana – #24 Pius Suter – #89 Sam Gagner
#73 Adam Erne – #27 Michael Rasmussen – #70 Oskar Sundqvist
#84 Olli Juolevi – #22 Mitchell Stevens – #67 Taro Hirose
#65 Danny DeKeyser – #53 Moritz Seider
#82 Jordan Oesterle – #17 Filip Hronek
#8 Jake Walman – #28 Gustav Lindstrom
Starter: #39 Alex Nedeljokvic
#29 Thomas Greiss